Archives For Pluralism

In 2010 Syracuse University’s Henricks Chapel formally appointed a Pagan Chaplain, making Syracuse the second American university to appoint such a position.  The University of Southern Maine (UME) set the precedent way back in 2002.  Syracuse was next in 2010 followed by the Air Force Academy (USAFA) in 2011.  More than three years have passed since Syracuse welcomed Pagan Chaplain, Mary Hudson.  In that time she has accomplished much; most recently, the installation of a dedicated  sacred stone circle in the campus’ main quad.

Syracuse University  Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  rju92

Syracuse University
Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s rju92

Prior to 2010 Syracuse had already taken steps to advocate for religious plurality and tolerance. For example, The Student Pagan Information Relations and Learning (SPIRAL) was a recognized and active student-run group for whom Mary was the advisor. While working for the school’s IT department, Mary assisted Pagan students and was frequently asked to guest-lecture in mythology and religion classes.

colemans

Mary Hudson

Ironically, in 2009, Mary had made a personal decision to leave university life completely. She recalls:

I was worried what would happen [to the Pagan students] once I left the University. As it happens, the universe…gods…guides…ancestors…or…whatever had different plans. The Chaplaincy was [established] and recognized with myself appointed to be the Pagan Chaplain.

Tiffany Steinwert, Dean of Henricks Chapel, explains that having a Pagan Chaplain was “crucial to fulfilling their mission,” which reads:

Hendricks Chapel is the diverse religious, spiritual, ethical and cultural heart of Syracuse University that connects people of all faiths and no faith through active engagement, mutual dialogue, reflective spirituality, responsible leadership and a rigorous commitment to social justice.

Dean Tiffany Steinwert

Dean Tiffany Steinwert

Just recognizing SPIRAL wasn’t enough.  Dean Steinwert stressed Syracuse’s commitment to religious equality.  For that reason alone, all Pagan religions and their chaplain had to be “listed in a normative way.”

Over the past three years the response to the Pagan Chaplaincy has been mostly positive.  Although there were some initial grumbles from the community, they were, as Dean Steinwert says, “low impact.”  She describes the majority of reactions as “Huh? Pagan?” In her mind this confusion opens a doorway to facilitate greater religious literacy.  It presents a teaching moment. Mary notes:

I’ve had the sign [taken] off my bulletin board… I get the occasional hate mail or email… I had a death threat or two in the beginning but nothing like that since then. I’ve talked with many a person to educate them that Pagans aren’t evil devil worshipers. Some believe me; some don’t but that is for them to decide not me. On occasion I get a cold shoulder from a visiting guest but it is due to their ignorance and fear….”

Despite any backlash, the Chapel and its staff have remained committed to their mission. Mary says, “I have met some of the most incredibly amazing individuals of faith you could possibly imagine and been welcomed with open arms.”

This dedication to religious pluralism extends way beyond the Chapel walls to the University administration itself. Mary explains:

The Pagan Chaplaincy was the only [one] that did not have dedicated religious space on campus. I submitted a proposal several years ago…but that was prior to the Pagan Chaplaincy being recognized. About a year ago I was asked to resubmit the proposal.

When Dean Steinwert sent the proposal to the Design and Construction team, she expected objections and concerns. Instead she got positive feedback and questions focusing solely on religious sensitivity issues such as: Would Mary have to lay the stones? What types of stones would be needed? Did the stones need to be specially blessed?

The project was approved with relative ease.  On October 14, the school installed four permanent altar stones in the main quad, each representing the cardinal directions.  Coincidentally, while the stones were laid, a Native American Student group happened to be performing a ceremonial dance across the quad. Mary says,“[This] is a true symbol of the dedication that the University has to supporting all people in a diverse world.”

Syracuse University's Stone Circle

Syracuse University’s Stone Circle

Syracuse is not the first educational institution to approve a sacred space for Pagan practice. The United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) created its Falcon Circle in 2011.  After much backlash and media hype over the $51,484 price tag, the USAFA Public Affairs department released this a statement:

The Cadet Chapel that now houses Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist worship areas cost $3.5 million to build — in 1959. That would be more than $25 million in today’s dollars, or enough to build 500 Falcon Circles.

Chaplain (Col.) Robert Bruno, the Academy’s senior chaplain, was quoted as saying:

The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion does not just apply to the mainstream faith groups, e.g., Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox (or) Muslim…It also applies to atheists, secularists, freethinkers and those whose belief systems are usually classified under the umbrella term of ‘Earth-Centered Spirituality….A denial of constitutional rights to one threatens the constitutional rights of all.

Since 2010 both USAFA’s and Syracuse’s inclusivity policies have made national headlines due to both schools’ prominence. This visibility has undoubtedly helped expand the public discourse on Pagan Chaplaincy and Paganism in general.

Cynthia Jane Collins

Cynthia Jane Collins

To be fair, it was a much smaller school that paved the way. In 2002 Cynthia Jane Collins became the first Pagan Chaplain at the University of Southern Maine (UME) in Portland.  She was recruited to assist Pagan students work through their 9/11 grief.  Cynthia resigned in 2013 handing the position over to a trusted Pagan colleague. Of the eleven years at UME, she recalls:

Seeing people of religion and faith work together for the good of all was inspiring…Everything was not easy, simple or even resolved the thing I think that held us together, and hold chaplaincies in any area together, is the commitment of folk to know other folk.

Outside of the United States, there are several universities with Pagan chaplaincies. These include Aston University and the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. The University of Toronto has both Wiccan Chaplain and a Celtic & Recon Tradition Chaplain. Both the University of Victoria in Canada and Flinders University in Australia have had Pagan Chaplains in recent years. (Why they no longer do is still being investigated.)*

Why are there so few Pagan Chaplains in general? Is it fear of backlash or an age-old prejudice?  Mary believes the answer is far simpler.  She says, “Most institutions don’t think about Pagans, or at least haven’t in the past.  [They don’t] understand that there might be a need.”  This may change as highly visible institutions like Syracuse and USAFA continue to recognize Paganism through the support of Chaplaincies and sacred space.

Mary Hudson preparing an altar

Mary Hudson preparing an altar

Mary has described the past three years as “the greatest experience of her life”- one that she “would never have imagined possible fifteen years ago.” She recalls:

Something a little odd has happened as well with non-Pagan students, faculty and staff…As a Pagan, I’m often the “safe” Chaplain to talk to about hard issues. I have conversations start with “I’m (insert faith tradition) and I don’t want to change, but I want to talk about (insert topic causing crisis in faith) and I thought you would be safe. I don’t want to talk dogma, I just want to talk.”

Syracuse’ Pagan Chaplaincy has come a long way in three years.  Mary currently continues to assist Pagan students on a daily basis, to interface with other schools, including the USAFA, and to represent Syracuse and Paganism at national and international Chaplaincy events.  Mary adds:

Most of the time people have no idea how much of an impact they can make in the world around them. It doesn’t have to be a big thing to make that impact, it can be little things.

Sometimes those little things can add up to make one big thing.

 

* Update (11/24 3:45 PST): Flinders University has confirmed that they do still have a Pagan Chaplain.

When the Sacred Harvest Festival was finished, the first thing I noticed while wandering through the airport was how strange it was that nobody was in a sarong. Or naked. Or drumming. It was a shock to my system, all these pants and suits.

Even the babies drum at Sacred Harvest Festival.

Even the babies drum at Sacred Harvest Festival. Photo by Nels Linde.

Pagan culture is sensory, and visceral, and delightfully messy. Meeting times are announced with music, worship is celebrated with movement, and the body is displayed as a sign of reverence, an act of liberation, and an expression of joy. Spend a week in the woods with a parley of Pagans and you start to believe that this is how the world actually is.

It was the ordinary aspects of the Sacred Harvest Festival that charmed me the most. The ever-present hospitality from the festival presenters made me feel at home from the moment I arrived, and I was never without a plate of food or a cup of some fine beverage in my hand. I was greeted with kindness, curiosity, and excitement, and I had the distinct feeling that I was welcome and wanted. There was a keen sense of fellowship at this gathering from all directions, and it wasn’t just “Minnesota nice” either. It felt completely genuine, and without pretense.

While ritual plays an important part in the festival, it was the post-ritual drumming and fire-dancing that seemed to attract a great deal of engagement from the festival attendees. In conversation with Kenny Klein, another of the featured national guests, I learned that this shift of emphasis away from ritual and more toward drumming and dancing is becoming more common at Pagan gatherings across the country, which leads me to wonder if the conversations about praxis v.s. belief that periodically dominate the Pagan blogosphere are actually representative of what is happening within the Pagan community.

To know the Pagan community primarily through the internet is to miss out on a great deal of nuance and subtlety. Our digital text lacks the contours of our faces, the undertones of fragrance and sound that are present when we gather in the flesh. Pagans make interesting noises. We say things that make your head cock a little to the side. We have a way of combining sacred symbolism with the sardonic that can infuriate the pious and delight the irreverent. We are a fascinating mixture of the holy and the profane, sometimes flipping either definition on its head. And I love that about us.

This all only became clear by being at a festival for a full seven days. Immersion is the best way to learn a new language, and immersive Paganism is no different. Share a meal with someone from a different tradition and you’ll come to know the myriad of ways that you mirror one another. Pass a horn in person to someone who, online, you regularly disagree with and you just might begin forging a real and meaningful friendship in spite of your differences. I didn’t realize this before, but most of my interactions with Pagans have been lacking the very embodiment that so many of our theologies hold dear.

Pagan festivals are staging grounds for transformation, should one wish to engage that deeply. When done well, they foster a safe space to learn, to practice, to rejoice, to inspect, and to play. Sacred Harvest Festival provided this to me, and to many of those who joined me in workshops or at rituals. During my unPaganism workshop we broke apart our assumptions about what it means to be a Pagan. We talked about our Euro-centric tendencies, our assumptions about ritual, and even began to examine our own susceptibility to the us/them dynamics that plague other religious communities. We did this with grace, with kindness, and with an inquiry that I found to be quite refreshing.

A youth workshop with Teo Bishop. Photo by Nels Linde.

A youth workshop with Teo Bishop. Photo by Nels Linde.

There were others in attendance at the festival who had a challenging time feeling included by a community that feels so inclusive otherwise. The festival is in its 16th year, and there are many young people who have been coming to this gathering for their entire lives. I led a workshop for the youth, and found myself in conversation with them about their hopes for the festival and their desire for more youth-centered activities. They told me about a schism which took place in the community a few years back, and how before that time there was an entire portion of the festival grounds reserved exclusively for the youth. This “Youth Camp” provided kids the opportunity to camp away from their parents and to build a culture of their own. It was a cherished experience, and one that the Harmony Tribe youth miss very much.

In the grand scheme of things, our communities are young. Even those among us who reach back into the archives of history in search of an example are still a part of a relatively new community of religious practitioners. Our polytheist, or monist, or dualistic monotheist expressions are a mashup of the old and the new, and it is during events like Sacred Harvest Festival that we create the opportunities to re-examine our own definitions. We get a chance to look at what a Druid is, or a Witch, or a Hellenic, or a Hawaiian. Our skyclad dancing becomes a lovely metaphor: we show ourselves to one another; we allow ourselves to be seen, to be heard, to be known.

Festival culture is a petri dish, and the culture of a festival is enhanced and affected by each of the attendees. Sacred Harvest Festival feels very Wiccan-centric to a Druid who’s spent the past several years in community with reconstructionists, but this is not inherently a bad thing. My friend, Lamyka (Lahela MP Nihipali) reminded me during our unPaganism discussion that a core, central Pagan value — perhaps the most important one for us to remember — is pluralism. We need not forfeit our individual cultural traditions in order to take part in the greater Pagan community. We need not all become one thing in order to get along.

During this week in the woods I witnessed reconstructionists politely declining attendance at pan-Pagan rituals, siting religious reasons, and then I watched those same people engage in a different syncretic ritual because they found room within that particular ritual for their own cultural and religious interpretation. They found a way to both honor their own values and practices and observe a communal experience of celebration.

I find this flexibility to be a sign of great maturity, and an indication that the Pagan community has a bright future yet. If one among us can maintain her own sense of religious and cultural boundaries while still engaging in close, intimate contact with those of a very different perspective then there is evidence that we are not completely lost. We are not destitute, or fracturing beyond repair. We are not, as some blogging wars would have you believe, on the verge of meaninglessness.

Ritual Space at Sacred Harvest Festival. Photo by Mike Bardon.

Ritual Space at Sacred Harvest Festival. Photo by Mike Bardon.

We are young. We are learning. We are, should we wish to be, capable of great things. We offer generously of ourselves. We demonstrate hospitality in the most remarkable ways. We love and honor our Gods, and we do our best to love and honor each other.

This is what I witnessed at Sacred Harvest Festival. This is what gives me hope about moving forward as a contemplative Pagan, a bard, and a perpetual seeker.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Fox News contributor Liz Trotta: "such disregard is deeply rooted in the extraordinary creeping paganism."

Fox News contributor Liz Trotta joins the paganism-as-slur chorus: “such disregard is deeply rooted in the extraordinary creeping paganism.”

  • I guess I should take this as confirmation that I was on the right track with my recent article on the world “paganism” being increasingly used as a slur. Political snark-blog Wonkette notices all the “pagan” talk too, most recently evidenced by Fox News Analyst Liz Trotta. Quote: “The only place where “paganism” seems to be making real gains, of course, is in wingnut rhetoric. In the good old days, it was “secular humanism” that was supposed to be taking over, but in recent years, these guys seem to be warning more and more about “paganism” — by which they seem to mean almost anything they have a faith-based excuse for disliking […] Fundies have always worried about anything they think might be occult or witchcraft — consider the freakouts over Harry Potter — but now the fear of a pagan planet seems to be increasingly seeping into garden-variety wingnut discourse like Trotta’s […]  It’s hard to get a sense of just how widespread this nutty “the pagans are coming” meme is, but it’s definitely out there.” The question for us capital-P Pagans is: how do we respond to this growing trend?
  • So, what happens when Christianity religiously dominates a state in Hindu-dominated India? Well, apparently you get Satanists. Quote: “Christian groups in India’s northeastern state of Nagaland are working to quell the rapid growth of Satanism after reports that thousands of teenagers from churches had taken up devil worship in recent months. The Vatican’s Fides news agency recently reported that more than 3,000 young “worshipers of Satan” have been identified in Nagaland’s capital of Kohima alone.” If you give people two choices, and only two choices, God or Satan, it seems inevitable that those unhappy with the Christian God will turn to his opponent. This is what happens when religious ecosystems are critically disrupted. 
  • Is the secular West heading into “a galloping spiritual pluralism?”Columnist David Brooks seems to endorse that future, one paraphrased from Charles Taylor, author of “A Secular Age.” Quote: “Orthodox believers now live with a different tension: how to combine the masterpieces of humanism with the central mysteries of their own faiths. This pluralism can produce fragmentations and shallow options, and Taylor can eviscerate them, but, over all, this secular age beats the conformity and stultification of the age of fundamentalism, and it allows for magnificent spiritual achievement.” Would modern Paganism be one of those achievements? 
  • The Fast Co.Design blog does a feature on the approval of the Thor’s Hammer for Veteran’s grave stones and markers. Quote: “To most of us, Mjölnir might bring to mind Jack Kirby’s trippy Marvel Comics Asgard, a rainbow-striped city of no fixed point in time. Or it might make us think of an armored Chris Hemsworth bellowing as he smashes his hammer down on Captain America’s raised shield. But it’s also a symbol that represents virtues so profoundly felt that two men lived and laid down their lives for it in service of their country. Great symbols resonate deeply within all of us, but each to our own unique frequency. That’s what makes them more powerful than even Mjölnir.” Yes, I’m quoted in the article. There are some things I personally would have changed, and I’m sure a Heathen representative from an organization like The Troth could have done a better job, but I think the piece overall is positive and sympathetic.
  • The Colorado Independent has an in-depth piece up about the murder of Tom Clements, head of the Colorado Department of Corrections, by former inmate Evan Ebel, and how the policy of long-term solitary confinement without re-integration may have damaged Ebel’s mental stability beyond repair. Quote: “’Forty-seven percent of these guys are walking right out of ad-seg into our communities,’ Clements told me in 2011. ‘Forty-seven percent. That’s the number that keeps me awake at night.’” I mentioned this case back in May due to revelations that Ebel had listed himself as an adherent to the Asatru faith. 
Graphic via The Globe and Mail.

Graphic via The Globe and Mail.

  • The Pew Forum analyzes Canada’s changing religious landscape, noting the growing of “other” religions and those who claim no religious identity at all. Quote: “The number of Canadians who belong to other religions – including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity – is growing. Collectively, these smaller religious groups account for more than one-in-ten Canadians (11%) as of 2011, up from not quite one-in-twenty (4%) in 1981. In addition, the number of Canadians who do not identify with any religion has been rising rapidly in recent decades, going from 4% in 1971 to nearly a quarter (24%) in 2011.” You can read my article on Canada’s census data, here
  • The Lancashire Constabulary has apologized after The Police Pagan Association acted on several complaints regarding allegations that Paganism might somehow be involved in a rash of “horse slashings” in the area. Quote: “We are aware that comments made to the Lancashire Evening Post recently suggesting that Pagans may be linked to attacks on horses has caused some offence. We would like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone who has been offended; this was certainly not our intention . The comments made are not a reflection of the views of Lancashire Constabulary as a whole. Lancashire Constabulary encourages an open and inclusive culture and celebrates the diversity of our workforce and communities.”This is not the first time that allegations like this have surfaced, and so far no mysterious cult or occult practitioner has been caught bothering or harming horses. It seems to come down to sensationalism and superstition. 
  • There are lots of reasons to not like the new “The Lone Ranger” film, but Tonto not being a Christian certainly shouldn’t be one of them. Right? Quote: “The new “Lone Ranger” film has been a critical and box office disappointment, but the fact that the Indian character “Tonto” is not a Christian has upset some Christian conservatives.” Also problematic: evil businessmen and daring to mention that our country slaughtered Native Americans. As I said, this is film is problematic for all sorts of reasons, but daring to show non-Christian faiths as heroic or positive shouldn’t be one of them. 
  • A challenge to Selma, California’s fortune telling ordinances was dismissed on ripeness grounds because the plaintiff never bothering trying to go through the process of getting a license. Quote: “In Davis v. City of Selma, (ED CA, July 2, 2013), a California federal district court dismissed on ripeness grounds various challenges to the city of Selma, California’s ordinance which requires “Fortune Tellers” to obtain a license in order to provide services within the city.  Plaintiff, a spiritual counselor, initially sought a business license under the Selma Municipal Code (“S.M.C.”), but never completed the application process because it was too restrictive.  Instead she sued claiming violations of her rights under the 1st and 14th Amendments and RLUIPA.” In legal matters, process is important, and if you don’t follow that process, your case can fall apart overnight. 
  • Suhag A. Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation analyzes the recent high-profile decision regarding yoga being taught at a public school, and whether that violated the separation of church and state. Shukla notes that what was being taught had all Hindu elements removed, and truly was free from religion. Quote: “While I haven’t read Judge Meyer’s ruling yet, media accounts indicate that our position is in consonance with his. Yoga is rooted in Hindu tradition, he reportedly said, but the “yoga” taught in Encinitas was stripped bare of all cultural references and even the Sanskrit names for poses, rendering it non-religious. I would go further to say that such asana based courses should not be called yoga. They are immensely helpful, and schools should embrace them, but yoga means so much more.”HAF has been on a campaign to “Take Yoga Back” and remind people that the practice did spring from Hindu religious culture.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Pagan Federation banner.

Pagan Federation banner.

correspondences

Correspondences journal.

  • A new academic journal of Western Esotericism, Correspondences, has been announced.  Quote: “By providing a wider forum of debate regarding issues and currents in Western esotericism than has previously been possible, Correspondences is committed to publishing work of a high academic standard as determined by a peer-review process, but does not require academic credentials as prerequisite for publication. Students and non-affiliated academics are encouraged to join established scholars in submitting insightful, well-researched articles that offer new ideas, positions, or information to the field.” First issues is due in June, call for papers, here.
  • Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll is a thuggish Christian power-tripper who thinks he’s edgy because he writes about having sex with his wife. He’d be a huge joke were it not for his rampant (almost cultish) popularity in the Pacific Northwest. Now, the Seattle mega-pastor is attacking Twilight (because he’s oh-so-relevant) for sinking teen girls into Paganism and the occult. Quote: “…girls the same age of my 15-year-old daughter are talking about “awakening,” which is their word for converting to paganism (like the Christian word “born again”). In a perverted twist on Communion, their sacraments include the giving of your own blood by becoming a “donor.” This is entirely pagan.” No, this is entirely inane. Despite his Seattle-denizen ambient hipster facade, Driscoll is your typical evangelical social conservative who pearl-clutches over the thought of Paganism.
  • The creepy UK Pagan who was caught with a semi-undressed underage girl in the woods has narrowly avoided being put on sex offenders registry after the judge decided that the “sexual element” wasn’t sexual enough to justify his inclusion. Quote: “Sheriff Noel McPartlin said it was ‘hard to escape the view that him being naked in the room with the girl might suggest a sexual element […] I am a bit hesitant but I do not think the sexual element is significant enough to justify placing him on the register.'” 
  • As a counter-point to the hysteria of Mark Driscoll, Richard Stearns, president of World Vision (the largest evangelical Christian relief organization in the world), suggests a culture-war cease fire between Christians and non-Christians. Quote: “We need to find a way to live in a pluralistic society without engaging in an arms race with those who are not Christians.”
  • Indian Country Today Media Network reports that a coalition of Native American spiritual leaders have signed a declaration opposing Canada’s oil sands and the new Tar Sands pipeline being proposed. Quote: “The statement, signed by more than 20 spiritual chiefs at a Sundance this summer in South Dakota, includes members of the Lakota, Navajo, Apache, Mohawk, Dine, Aztec and Ojibwe nations, spanning much of Turtle Island.”
  • Riordons Witchcraft Emporium in Australia wants you to know that they have a screening process: “Are they a borderline schizophrenic … or somehow mad? There are many vulnerable people in the world and you don’t want to make their situation worse.” Also profiled in the article is the shop Spellbox. Both establishments take pains to stress that they aren’t like Harry Potter, and they aren’t “New Age.”
  • Counter-cultural magazine Arthur has announced its return, featuring many of the magickal luminaries that made it such a hit in the first place. Quote: “Arthur’s gang of idiots, know-it-alls and village explainers are back, from Bull Tonguers Byron Coley & Thurston Moore to radical ecologist Nance Klehm to trickster activists Center for Tactical Magic to Defend Brooklyn’s socio-political commentator Dave Reeves to a host of new, fresh-faced troublemakers, edited by ol’ fool Jay Babcock and art directed by Yasmin Khan.” I suspect that this news will excite a certain portion of my readership.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Right now the United States is immersed in a flurry of political wrangling, our two major parties wrapping up, or about to begin, major conventions that they hope will sell their candidate to an increasingly disaffected electorate. For those of us who exist on the margins of America’s tapestry of faith and religion, it can seem doubly alienating. A celebration of what we are not.

Certainly there have been inroads, the Republican National Convention invited a Sikh to give an opening invocation (albeit one you could only see on C-SPAN), and the Democratic National Convention has enshrined marriage equality in their national platform, but for the most part these events are exercises in affirming a certain bland, comfortable, (mostly) non-controversial all-American idiom (from different political lenses, to be sure). They are not, despite what activists from both sides desire, moments that dare confront or change the status quo. No one will be forced to confront, as Brian Jay Stanley was, their own prejudices or assumptions.

“Before college I was a skeptic and rationalist toward every religion except my own, Christianity. Like most of humanity, I had believed the religion I’d heard first, and on its authority dismissed all the religions I’d heard second. Seeing Muslims wearing turbans or Hindus bindis, I thought the oddity of their customs proved the error of their beliefs. Studying all faiths in one class in college, however, I saw my religion from the outside and realized that the rites of my Sundays — warbling choirs and smocked babies dipped in silver fonts and bread as the body of Christ — were as curious as what I had disparaged as myths. In class discussions I sometimes unwittingly revealed assumptions that I thought were axioms, and would read surprise in the eyes of a Hare Krishna or Bahai. My notion of normal was an accident of my birth and upbringing. Whomever I saw as strange saw me as strange. I had raised a doubtful brow at Buddhists bowing to golden statues, even as I prayed weekly to a crucified first-century Jew, not realizing that either all religions are bizarre or none is.”

As Jeffrey Weiss at RealClearReligion notes, the slow demographic shift away from institutional faiths, the rise of “nones,” those claiming to particular religion, have yet to be eagerly courted by either party, particularly the Republicans.

“Where religion came up in Tampa last week, at least among the best-known and prime-time speakers, it was mostly in reference to a fairly specific notion of God. The speakers used language most familiar to a particular reading of Christianity. To be fair, much of the language would also have been familiar in the mid-1700s, as America’s founders crafted their exquisite balance of freedoms and responsibilities. But today, as many as one American in five belongs to the religious “Nones,” depending on the polls you read. That’s a huge leap from a couple of decades ago. And members of this group are far more likely to describe themselves as political independents than people who say they ascribe to any particular religion. They may have been more turned off than inspired by the way the Republicans wove religion and politics together.”

This isn’t a uniquely Republican problem, as the Democrats aren’t exactly eager to give non-Christians a prime-time voice. Both seek to keep Christians in their base, while hoping their policy stances will appeal to non-Christians who will overlook all the monotheistic God talk. Change, it seems, happens in frustratingly small increments. No one is forced to deal with people who don’t have the slightest similarity to us,” even within the “big tent” of our national parties, and that’s a shame. That said, CNN believes the Democratic convention will be less “faith-y” (ie less Christian) than four years ago, but it’s all speculation at this point.

Happening in the shadow of the “values voter” election of 2004, the 2008 Democratic convention was something of a faith fest, especially when it came to evangelicals. Convention roles went to the Rev. Joel Hunter, a megapastor from Florida, and best-selling Christian author Don Miller. This year, some religious activists are quietly wondering if the convention will come off as more secular. Hunter, who remains close to Obama, is skipping Charlotte. “There’s no reason for me to be there,” he told us. “My relationship with the president is pastoral and not political.”

Let me be clear, this is not a “both parties are the same” argument, I think there are clear and definable differences in policy between the Democrats and Republicans. I trust my readers are intelligent enough to discern where their interests lie in those matters, as The Wild Hunt doesn’t endorse candidates. However, both parties do have a “religion” problem, and it isn’t the problem of appealing to Christians of various inclinations.

The problem is that both parties have been slow to embrace real pluralism and religious diversity in their one prime-time 3-day infomercial to the American people (and in certain senses, the world). This may not be a problem for this election cycle, but it is increasingly going to be an issue as that slow demographic shift keeps on shifting, and more states start to be evenly divided between Christians on one side, with “nones” and “others” on the other. The “unchurched” (non-Christian) vote is going to be a real thing in the years to come, and we’re a frustratingly diverse demographic. Asian-Americans are a key growth point for non-Abrahamic religions across the country, while a whopping 12% of state residents are adherents of a New Age, Pagan, or esoteric faiths in Colorado, with another 20% fitting into the “none” category. These are growing populations that can’t be ignored forever.

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Christian adherents as percentage of state population (2010).

Both parties need to embrace the “communion of strangers,” and realize that pluralism is the core value regarding religion in America. Both parties need to either embrace the full tapestry of faith in their conventions, or they need to stop pandering to religious groups entirely. That isn’t so strange a notion, as it wasn’t until our modern era that faith became so politicized that we injected it into the very fabric of partisan politics. Of course, it used to be a given that we were all Christians, and that all “others” lived here by our sufferance. Still, one direction or another needs to be taken, or the parties will soon find themselves catering to ever-smaller slices of the demographic pie until it will a case of change or die. My hope is that secularism can stop being a dirty word, and we can simply get down to the business of rationally hashing out our policy differences without invoking divine backing to bolster an argument. If not now, then soon.

[The following is a post from The Wild Hunt archives. The Wild Hunt is on hiatus through Labor Day weekend and will return with new posts on Tuesday, September 4th.]

Despite the fact that the history of the United States is incredibly well-documented, many of us labor under various misapprehensions regarding our nation’s past. This seems especially true of America’s religious history. Lately it seems as if there’s been an inundation of pundits, amateur historians, and demagogues trying to frame us into a reductive (Protestant) Christian mold, painting a picture of harmony and piety that endured until the post-60s culture wars started raging. This sort of narrative leaves little room for religious minorities and outsiders to understand their own experiences, or draw accurate lessons from history. While recent books by Leigh SchmidtChas Clifton,Courtney Bender, and others, have taken the time to explore religious perspectives outside of this paradigm, there’s still a great need to deconstruct and analyze just how our current ideas about American religiosity were formed.

Kevin M. Schultz, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois in Chicago, in his new book “Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise,” recounts how goodwill and interfaith groups in the early 20th century battled a rise of nativistic politics, antisemitism, and anti-Catholicism to forge the notion of a “Judeo-Christian” America and ultimately (and somewhat unintentionally) usher in a sweeping disestablishment of religion in the United States. A look at how toxic religious nativism can be avoided in favor of pluralism, and how mistrusted religious minorities navigated an America dominated by Protestant Christianity. I think Schultz’s book should be required reading, especially for religious minorities currently struggling for equal treatment in American culture. I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with Kevin M. Schultz about the book, exploring how a new religious image of America was formed in the 20th century, how religious conservatives today exploit that image, and what lessons religious minorities today can take from this period in history.

What prompted you to write “Tri-Faith America?” It certainly seem very relevant to the state of religion and politics in America today. Do you feel this is a bit of forgotten history?

When I wrote “Tri-Faith America,” I wrote it purely as a piece of history. I was interested in the debates about pluralism and “getting along” that took place during World War II, or more generally after the 1930s, when class differences dominated American politics, and before the 1960s, when the civil rights movement thrust race so dramatically into the national consciousness.

As I began to investigate the question, which was in fact not very often investigated, it became increasingly clear to me that battles between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were vitally important to Americans of that era. These debates dominated the development of the suburbs, the Supreme Court cases, the census, what should be taught in schools, and even the make-up of Little League teams.

It was only after I discovered all these debates that I saw how they fit into the question about whether or not America is a Christian nation, a debate that, as your question suggests, is relevant to the state of religion and politics today. Many of the actors in my story were saying things like “We need a broader, more inclusive, and more accurate conception of the American nation.” Given the limits of the time, they adopted a “tri-faith” model, inviting Catholics and Jews to the table for the first time.

I think many people would be surprised at how manufactured our modern ideas of America as a “Judeo-Christian” country are, that we went from a status quo where, according to Franklin D. Roosevelt, “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance,” to one where the commonalities between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were stressed and a united religious front seen as vital to our nation. It seems remarkable that interfaith and goodwill organizations were able to so quickly turn the United States away from the growing nativism of the times. I understand that WW2 was a great cultural unifier, but the momentum had begun even before that. To what do you ascribe the underlying success of this “tri-faith” effort?

First off, I think I’d disagree with the part of the question where you say “were able to so quickly turn the US away from nativism.” It took a lot of work!

But I think two things are at play in this transformation, a transformation from, to put it too simply, nativism to an acceptance of pluralism. First, and I don’t go into this much in my book, a lot of Americans were challenging the underlying structures of racism, things like the 19th century notion of the hierarchy of races, which of course always premised white Protestant superiority and then had all other groups lower in the hierarchy, with black people always at the bottom. Lots of Americans were challenging this idea in the first decades of the twentieth century–scientists, Leftist Jewish intellectuals, some progressive reformers, many folks in the labor movement of the 1930s, and my interfaith folks, who were demanding greater inclusion and a new national image.

Out of this mix arose the folks I study in the book, who worked hard to reconceptualize the predominate notion of what it meant to be an American. They went on the road, setting up little morality plays with a priest, a rabbi, and a minister on stage all jabbing each other, asking the hard questions–can a non-Catholic get to Heaven? Do Jews run the world? They went to Des Moines and Debuque. They filmed movie-shorts. Ironically, they were helped greatly by Adolf Hitler, who presented an image that Americans sought to avoid, and one way of doing so was by being tolerant of other faiths. The US Armed Forced supported it too, somewhat remarkably inviting these religious advocates on military bases all over the world, one of the only non-military groups to be given such access. Then the Cold War against those godless communists cemented the image of America as a land of religious pluralism.

So it took some time, and was the result of people working hard to create a new image of America.

One thing that struck me in your book is seeing Catholics as outsiders, as a somewhat suspect religious minority struggling to gain political and social parity with the nation’s Protestants. One quote in particular from Carlton J.H. Hayes (the first Catholic co-chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews) seemed particularly relevant: “I have always maintained that in this country Protestants have the major responsibility for assuring justice and true toleration to non-Protestants, not because they are Protestants but because they are [the] majority group.” With Catholics now the largest Christian denomination in the United States, I can’t imagine a prominent Catholic lay-leader repeating these words, or words very much like them. The idea of the politically dominant faiths in this country “assuring justice and true toleration” to smaller faiths now seems almost radical. Are shifts away from sentiments like these simply a by-product of success? Has tri-faith America lost the ethos of protecting religious minorities today?

Ah, but Catholics were the largest Christian denomination even then, although most Catholics take issue with the label “denomination.” Perhaps saying the largest group of Christians is better.

What changed was the nation’s perception of itself. Now, instead of having Protestants dominating the nation’s social and moral authority, most minority faiths are more or less tolerated and protected, and even to some extent endorsed. The addition of Muslim, Buddhist, and maybe soon a Wiccan chaplain in the military might be one example.

But this tolerance and pluralism came at a cost: conservatives of all stripes–Protestants, Catholics, and Jews–have seen all this tolerance as a sign of a secularizing society. The timing made this seem accurate–it began in the late 1960s and 1970s. So today, instead of having Catholics as a sizable minority demanding inclusion, now many Catholics see themselves as defending the last ramparts of Christianity and civilization. Any breech demands a response and minority faiths present a certain challenge–they might just be the camel’s nose in the tent.

An important split in post-war tri-faith unity was the differing visions of America’s religious future and the idea of pluralism. For Catholics, who were growing in prominence and influence, an “all-in” pluralism was endorsed, where every faith commingled (and competed) in the public square, but for the Jewish community, who were wary of Catholicism’s history of persecution in Europe, secularism seemed the best option. While legal efforts have raised the wall between church and state and helped bring about historic disestablishment rulings, this split over the role of religion in our public life now rages hotter than ever. Where do you think we are going? Will there be a re-establishment, or will post-war secular gains hold?

As a historian, I always hate to predict the future. And the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on religion in public life are awkward, but they do shine a little light. Basically the Supreme Court has said religious icons that are old–say, having “In God We Trust” on our money or “under God” in our pledge, both of which came in the 1950s–are okay. We’re honoring our past. But having new religious icons in public space–say, building a giant statue of the 10 Commandments in a courthouse–is a symbol of endorsement. This isn’t terribly doctrinaire or logical, but as a pragmatic decision, it makes some sense.

My notion is that as a society we will continue to create space for worshipers of all faiths, even secular humanists and atheists–and this is a direct follow up of Tri-Faith America. But alongside that, more and more people will be able to bring their religious perspective openly into the public sphere, and this won’t be automatic grounds for dismissal. The burden then, of course, is for religious people to be able to make secular arguments. The idea that same sex marriage is wrong because it contradicts your faith is fine, but why should everyone have to live to the standards of your faith? If you can create a secular argument for why same sex marriage should be outlawed, then there will be a conversation, and that’s the best we can hope for in a democracy!

While the forming of a Judeo-Christian consciousness had many benefits for future religious minority communities, most notably the idea that “there was no such thing as neutral advocacy of religion,” it also provided a language and framework for the conservative Christian activists of today. Today many of them off-handedly talk of our “Judeo-Christian” heritage, or invoke the post-war/early Cold War religious consensus as a period they’d like to return to. I was particularly taken aback by a quote from a Catholic newspaper that you highlight: “Non-Christian religious groups, prompted by the presence of many of their children in public schools, are seeking to dilute or to eliminate Christ from Christmas.” Rhetoric like that could have easily been placed in the mouth of many “keep Christ in Christmas” activists today. How much do conservative Christian activists owe to this period, and how much is their conception of history shaped by it?

Yes, I was struck by that too. A lot of the conversations I found in the archives could have happened on The Daily Show or Fox News last week. It was remarkable.

As for how much today’s conservatives owe to the formulations of middle of the twentieth century, I think the answer is “not much.” The reason is because they are ignorant of it. They think (as do lefties, I should add) that something called “Judeo-Christianity” has been around forever, when in fact it was more or less invented in the late 1930s to combat Hitler and to bring Jews into the fold of “good Americanism.” Well, the thinking then went, if we can’t be “Protestant” or even “Christian,” what’s next? Judeo-Christian? Okay, let’s go with that. It wasn’t quite this simple, but that was the progression of thought, and the effort was to increase inclusivity. Today’s conservatives, however, use “Judeo-Christian” as an exclusive term–to keep those secularists and atheists and Muslims and Hindus out–and that’s the real distinction.

As for bringing Christ back into Christmas, there is a long history to that complaint, going back to the early 20th century and basically the invention of mass marketing and advertising.

Today the splits in religion seem to be between liberal and conservative visions of America (and theology), not between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. You note that the United State’s growing religious diversity since the 1960s has “made it difficult to refer to the United States as a ‘Judeo-Christian nation’,” though this growth hasn’t supplanted the “liberal-conservative divide.” Is America moving towards a post-Christian identity, religiously speaking, or do you think the conservative religious alliances will manage to hold back (or even reverse) this tide?

Good question, and again I hate to guess about the future. I do think it would take extraordinary circumstances for the United States to become a “Christian nation,” whatever that might mean (and few advocates bother to develop a vision). There just are too many diverse faiths in America and too many constitutional protections to kill off all our religious pluralism. Plus, if you look back to colonial Massachusetts, even those folks felt like they were living in un-Christian times. Recall that the great form of speech then was the Jeremiad. The threat of a coming American godlessness has a long, long history.

If you were to offer a lesson from the history of Tri-Faith America for religious minorities struggling today for acceptance and equal treatment, what would it be?

Histories lessons are always complicated because the events of the past happen in contexts that are very different from those that exist today. One of the things the advocates of “Tri-Faith America” did quite successfully, though, was to present a positive and forceful image of what it meant to be an American, one that made their position the obvious next step. They were fighting over the meaning of America, and they were using historical actors and historical antecedents to push their vision forward. Today’s conservatives are much better at this than today’s liberals. But religious minorities in the past have used the various languages of good Americanism to show they belong, and those arguments were very successful for the people I study too.

My thanks to Kevin M. Schultz for the interview, you can find ”Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise” at AmazonBarnes & NoblePowell’sGoogle, and other fine book (and e-book) sellers.

“Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.” – John B. Finch, 1882

If you follow religion news these days, you can’t help but be inundated with the current debate over what, exactly, “religious freedom” means, and what its limits are. The most popular manifestation concerns Catholic opposition to new contraception guidelines set forth by the Dept. of Health and Human Services (a topic I’ve covered before), but a large number of enterprising souls have taken this proverbial football and are running as far as they can with it. The most recent effort to “protect” religious freedom comes from a consortium of 66 Republican lawmakers who have written a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asking for an investigation into “a series of steps signaling hostility towards religious freedom” by the Air Force.

The lawmakers outlined several instances where they had problems with Air Force policy, particularly a memo last year from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, which said that “chaplains, not commanders” should notify airmen about chaplains’ religious programs. The lawmakers wrote the memo was “suggesting that the mere mention of these programs is impermissible.” They also took issue with the suspension of a briefing that discussed Bible references, the changing of a Latin office motto that included God and removing Bibles from Air Force Inn checklists. They wrote the policy of “complete separation” between church and state is having a “chilling effect” down the chain of command.

An Air Force spokesperson responded by saying that “Airmen are free to exercise their Constitutional right to practice their religion—in a manner that is respectful of other individuals’ rights to follow their own belief systems.” Indeed, these instances the 66 Republican lawmakers are concerned about aren’t initiatives to limit religious freedom, but to instead avoid showing favoritism for any particular faith.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz

“The Air Force’s top officer has issued a stern reminder to leaders about religion and their jobs: Don’t proselytize or show favoritism toward a particular faith. Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz sent a servicewide memo Sept. 1 cautioning leaders at all levels to balance the Constitution’s protection of religious freedom and the prohibition on government intrusion. “We have seen instances where well-meaning commanders and senior noncommissioned officers appeared to advance a particular religious view among their subordinates, calling into question their impartiality and objectivity. We can learn from these instances,” said Lt. Col. Sam Highley, Schwartz’s spokesman.”

We should also remember that these corrections aren’t happening in a vacuum, and were prompted by a culture of evangelical Christian takeover within the Air Force Academy, where blatant religious favoritism was in full and open display.

…my son’s orientation became an opportunity for the academy to aggressively proselytize this next crop of cadets. Maj. Warren Watties led a group of 10 young, exclusively evangelical chaplains who stood shoulder to shoulder.  He proudly stated that half of the cadets attended Bible studies on Monday nights in the dormitories and he hoped to increase this number from those in his audience who were about to join their ranks.  This “invitation” was followed with hallelujahs and amens by the evangelical clergy.  I later learned from Air Force Academy chaplain MeLinda Morton, a Lutheran who was forced to observe from the choir loft, that no priest, rabbi or mainline Protestant had been permitted to participate.”

This was a major scandal for the Air Force, which, like all government bodies, isn’t supposed to favor any particular faith, and to maintain separation between Church and State. They’ve since made major efforts to make their branch of the military a place where all faiths are respected, including the building of a Pagan/Nature Religions worship area at the Air Force Academy.

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy

Cadet Chapel Falcon Circle at the Air Force Academy. Photo by: Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette

Sadly, these worthy efforts towards making the Air Force a place that respects all manifestations of faith is being framed as an attack on “religious freedom” by these lawmakers. For them, religious freedom means freedom for Christians to swing their theological “arms” without any regard to whose nose might be struck. When U.S. Representatives Diane Black of Tennessee, Randy Forbes of Virginia and Todd Akin of Missouri assert that “the combination of events mentioned above raises concerns that the Air Force is developing a culture that is hostile towards religion” what they mean is hostile toward unfettered Christian expression, and little else. I cannot imagine that any of the 66 lawmakers gave one thought as to what things were like for religious minorities before the recent shift in policy and tone. Religious freedom, for them, begins and ends with their conception of America as a “Judeo-Christian” nation that exists under a single, monotheistic, God.

As I’ve said before, to these Christians, government-enforced secularism isn’t a neutral ethos, but a method of attacking their faith and limiting their free expression. In the minds of these Christians “religious freedom” means, in this time of demographic dominance, the right to let the majority dictate the religious norms of a society. Any deviance from that, in limiting prayer in schools, or sectarian prayer at government meetings, is a persecution of their church. We are increasingly caught in Christianity’s own crisis over its role and purpose in a post-Christian pluralistic society, and the results aren’t always pretty. This crisis will only escalate as religious minorities continue to stand up for real equality, for their voices to be heard in the public square, and as litigation starts to reevaluate what the standards for inclusion are in government-backed religious initiatives.

Whatever valid concerns Catholics, Evangelicals, and other conservative Christians might have over religious freedom in the United States, they are continually tempered by their insistence on being the sole definer of where that concept begins and ends. No one is asking Buddhists, Pagans, Hindus, or practitioners of Native religions for their input, and in many cases the same Christian leaders and lawmakers who cry persecution are the very same who ignore our concerns, or are outright dismissive of non-Christian religious expressions.

“I don’t care what the naysayers say. This nation was founded as a Christian nation. The god of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. There is only one God. There is only one God, and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words. I’m tired of people telling us as Christians that we can’t voice our beliefs or we can’t no longer pray in public. Listen to me. If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, get out! […] We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

To me, the Catholic Bishops and Evangelical leaders who claim to be baking the bread of freedom, produce only the taste of ashes in my mouth. Have we really forgotten that Christian Republican lawmakers as recently as 1999 tried to get the practice of Wicca banned from the military? That the Catholic Church, openly hostile to non-Christian faiths, has proposed a grand coalition of the dominant monotheisms to quash the rights of faiths and traditions who want to perform legal same-sex marriages? To my mind these are not the defenders of my religious freedom, to say the least.

If religious freedom as a concept is going to mean anything, if isn’t going to just be hollow rhetoric, then it needs to apply equally to everyone. That means creating a level playing field in the realm of government, it means not privileging the Christian majority simply because it’s a politically expedient thing to do. Sometimes it even means rolling back privileges that some have mistaken for “rights.” The problem is that far too many Christians in America have grown over fond of having no limits on their arm-swinging, and every judicial decision or law that tells them that certain noses are off-limits enrages them, and feeds into an ugly persecution complex (to the point where the majority assumes the mantle of the persecuted minority). Real religious freedom starts when groups stop twisting the concept to privilege themselves at the expense of others.

I’m in the process of reading two very different books about modern Pagans, and how they encounter Jesus, the central (and salvic) figure in Christian religion. The nature of the dialog found in these works point to the centrality and cultural power Christianity possesses, despite claims that this dominant monotheism is endangered in any meaningful way. Perhaps there are works underway about how Christians encounter Dionysis, or how best to explain Hekate to Jesus-followers, and I just haven’t heard about them yet? In any case, I think both tomes are revealing and worth examination for anyone interested in how Pagans exist and adapt into a religious world where Jesus is ever-present, and how more sensitive and thoughtful missional Christians consider modern Pagan religions.

The first book is “Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths” by Paul Louis Metzger, Professor of Christian Theology and Theology of Culture at Multnomah University. Readers of my blog may find that name familiar because he co-wrote a guest post here, repudiating a harmful article conflating modern Paganism with witchcraft killings, and aruging that “Christians must learn to show respect for other belief and praxis systems by substantiating our claims and criticisms and arguing for the cogency of our own convictions on level ground also occupied by others.” This is essentially, what “Connecting Christ” does, it discusses Christianity’s relationship to other faiths on “level ground.”

“This book promotes evangelism and dialogue, not one to the exclusion of the other. And as such it also promotes the need for thoughtful, sensitive communication during a time when our nation is reeling from the onslaught of the culture wars. The problem has not been our God or the Bible, but our approach to God and the Bible. As a result of our inauthentic witness, our God has looked all too common rather than as the uncommon God revealed as Jesus Christ. In light of this spiritual and biblical gut check, our witness in the twenty-first century will likely look very different.”

Make no mistake, this is a book where all faiths are ultimately found lacking or incomplete in comparison to Christianity, but Metzger at least engages with what he sees as  positive manifestations of each religion he looks at, and argues that Christians should repent for the sins of the Church. Further, he actually lets representatives from each faith tradition he writes about get the last word. So Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell responds on behalf of her church, Prema Raghunath speaks for Hinduism, and Gus diZerega gives a Pagan perspective.

“As we respect and honor Christians who grow from their encounters with their sacred literature and their God, so we request a similar respect in our religions with our text and our Gods.”

“Connecting Christ” is convinced that Christ is the way, but it advocates a far more humble method of spreading the gospel message, one in stark contrast to the ugly smears and triumphal gloating we see from most missionary efforts. The next book begins with a quotation from diZerega, but it’s a very different work, one written by a former Anglican clergyman turned Christian-Druid. “Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ” by Reverend Mark Townsend flips the script to explore how Pagans encounter, work with, think about, honor, and grapple with the figure of Jesus in their lives.

“Reverend Mark Townsend’s remarkable book is truly unlike any other, a thoughtful and deeply moving collection of more than two dozen stories, essays, and interviews about Jesus from today’s most respected Wiccan and Druidic leaders. Contributors such as Maxine Sanders, Christopher Penczak, Janet Farrar, Diana Paxson, Philip Carr-Gomm, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, and Raven Grimassi explore the historical figure of Jesus in relation to witchcraft, the tarot, goddess worship, and shamanism—while illustrating how this god of the Christian church blesses and inspires many who cannot or will not be part of his “official” family.”

If “Connecting Christ” is important for how it tries to change the way Christians encounter non-Christian faiths in a pluralistic world, “Jesus through Pagan Eyes” may actually be more vital for Christians who seek to understand how our diverse community views their savior. For any orthodox Christian this work will be full of heresies, but it is also paints a portrait of why Christians find it so difficult to “reach” us. Simply put, we encounter Jesus in sometimes radically different ways than they do.

“I see him as a teacher, prophet, miracle worker, and valid deity of the Christian pantheon. Who am I to deny the Christ’s validity?  Although, having known many magicians, Jesus strikes me as far more secure in his being than those magicians.”

The above quote is from Alexandrian Elder Maxine Sanders, who, I feel, encapsulates an important point about both of these books. Townsend asks Sanders what she feels Christians can learn from Pagans, and she replies, “unless they want to, nothing.” I see in these books, an opportunity and a challenge. If Christians want to understand us, and to understand how we view Christians, they have to truly want it first. So many books, with an occasional exception, are essentially lectures by Christians to other Christians about what they believe our religions are about. It’s clear they went in to whatever research or interviews they did wearing blinders, and never took them off. I sense in Metzger a willingness to seriously consider the worldview of other faiths instead of simply knocking down a straw man, and with the release of Townsend’s book, we have a extended meditation from Pagans on the very figure “Connecting Christ” wants us to experience.

I think the two books being released so close together is a kind of kismet, and those invested in a conversation between Pagans and Christians should pick up both and read them together. For my part, I’m trying to arrange a podcast interview with Townsend and Metzger to discuss Jesus, Pagans, and Christianity, and what the path forward from here may be. For the foreseeable future Pagans live in a world dominated by Jesus, while Christians have to increasingly deal with rising religious minorities no longer content to stay on the sidelines, who demand the rights of a pluralistic society. How we converse and understand one another will be vital, and I’m optimistic at the potential dialog created by these two books.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Torch lighting ceremony in Greece. (Associated Press)

Torch lighting ceremony in Greece. (Associated Press)

- The Olympic flame for the 2012 London games was lit yesterday at the Temple of Hera in Greece, though it did go out briefly during the ceremony. Luckily there was a back-up flame, and the torch started on its week-long journey around Greece. Once in Britain it will make a 70-day circuit in the lead-up to the Olympics. Despite the pageantry, some aren’t impressed, while others made snarky jokes about the flame going out. Still, it’s always nice to see echoes, reminders, that the Olympics are a pagan invention. Created to honor Zeus.

- In a historic first yesterday, Galina Krasskova, a Heathen, gave the opening prayer at a conference on women and indigeny being held at the United Nations. The first Heathen to ever do so. You can find the text of her opening ancestor prayer, here. I could be wrong, but I believe this conference was part of the larger 11th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), which I mentioned earlier. Congratulations to Galina on this achievement!

- Andrew Brown at The Guardian interviews an unnamed hip vicar who is allegedly dating a Witch, and opines on how to get the post-Christian generation back in the Anglican pews. Quote: “He said the only way was to go straight for the most improbable part of the story. If you’re teaching the virgin birth, point out at once that there were many virgin birth stories around at the time. Caesar Augustus himself was meant to have been the child of a God. So what was different about a God who chose a poor Jewish girl and not a princess for his bride? What changed if the Christian story were true and not the official one?” So, there you go? I guess?

- Congratulations to everyone’s favorite German Catholic mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, now St. Hildegard of Bingen thanks to Pope Benedict and the Catholic Church. Though, a Catholic blogger points out she was already a de facto saint for years. In any case, here’s to the “Sybil of the Rhine.”

- The Epoch Times profiles New York City Councilman, and congressional candidate, Dan Halloran. Not a single peep about his religion, in any context. Luckily, The Wild Hunt spends plenty of time on the subject.

PNC Managing Editor, Cara Schulz with Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson

PNC Managing Editor, Cara Schulz with Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson

- Speaking of politics, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson recently won the Libertarian Party’s nomination for president. He’s gotten quite a bit of media attention recently, with many wondering if this will be a breakout year for the Libertarians. Pagan Newswire Collective Managing Editor Cara Schulz got to spend the day with Johnson not too long ago, and Schulz followed up with the candidate to see if he regretted courting our community’s vote during a virtual “town hall” session with representatives from Pagan and Hindu media. Quote: “There was no consternation within my campaign about any of the feedback that we got on that event. No consternation.” You can read all of my coverage of Johnson, here.

- An Australian paper reports on two horse killing in England, linking them to the occult, Satanism, and the recent “super moon.” Actual solid evidence for this theory? Zero.

- Peter Berger, writing for The American Interest, defends Andrew Bowen’s Project Conversion, which I’ve mentioned a few times previously here at The Wild Hunt. What I find most interesting about the article is his refutation of “secularization theory—the notion that modernity necessarily brings about a decline in religion.” Berger notes that it “should be replaced by a theory of plurality—a situation in which many religions co-exist and interact with each other.” Sign me up as a proponent of plurality theory.

- TheoFantastique interviews Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac, author of “The Theology of Dracula: Reading the Book of Stoker as Sacred Text.” The book aims to reread “the horror classic as a Christian text, one that alchemizes Platonism, Gnosticism, Mariology and Christian resurrection in a tale that explores the grotesque.” Sounds very interesting, especially if you’re a fan of Stoker and Dracula.

- An interfaith memorial service for Pagan author, elder, and priestess, De-Anna Alba, also known as Wendy White, will be held tomorrow, Saturday, May 12, 2012 in California at the Church of the Incarnation. De-Anna, author of “The Cauldron of Change: Myths, Mysteries and Magick of the Goddess,” was one of Circle Sanctuary‘s first priestesses and was Circle Sanctuary’s first church secretary. She assisted Selena Fox with publications, events, music, networking, and other endeavors. Selena Fox will give her eulogy and will be among the officiants at De-Anna’s interfaith memorial service this Saturday. Selena also will be among the officiants at De-Anna’s Pagan memorial service and cremains interment at Circle Cemetery in Wisconsin on July 21.

- In a final note, rest in peace Maurice Sendak. Let the wild rumpus start!

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

The United States of America is a secular, pluralistic, nation that is home to hundreds of distinct faiths, philosophies, and traditions living, working, and playing side-by-side. Our diversity has often been touted as one of our great strengths, that we don’t succumb to endless internal wars, chaos, and strife, that the American experiment largely “works.” That said, no matter how “pagan” our democracy, our republic, is, we can’t but acknowledge that Christianity has been a driving force in our collective history, and in the history of Western civilization as a whole. Christian colonizers pushed out indigenous peoples and beliefs, and tried to build a new Jerusalem, a “city upon a hill.” However, partially due to the strife between Christian denominations, our nation on its founding erected “a wall of separation” between (Christian) church and state, and our history has experienced waves of disestablishment and religious “awakenings” ever since.

Today, despite the softening Christian character of our nation, our politics and culture are dominated by a Christian narrative (more than 3/4 of Americans identify as Christian), with almost mandatory public shows of Christian piety from the majority of our leaders.

In the cover story of this week’s Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan says that Christianity itself is in crisis, and that the “ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.”

“All of which is to say something so obvious it is almost taboo: Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial—or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been? That’s why polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power. But the need for new questioning—of Christian institutions as well as ideas and priorities—is as real as the crisis is deep.”

In a live-chat discussing the story, Sullivan explicitly links the crisis of our current political dysfunction with the crisis of Christianity.

I do not think the crisis of our politics can be resolved without addressing the crisis of American Christianity. Because the corruption of Christianity has corrupted American public life and we must be rid of it to move forward. Hence my coinage of the term Christianist. I use it out of respect for real Christianity, as much as concern about its current partisan politicization.”

Reading the article, and the live-chat, the question came to me: what about us? What about the 22% or so of Americans who aren’t Christian? The “others” and “nones” on those surveys. How do we live in a society where the dominant faith is experiencing a crisis? How do we make our voices heard in a landscape that has devolved into “Democrat Jesus” vs. “Republican Jesus,” where all moral arguments are couched in the language of Christianity?

Where once President Franklin D. Roosevelt might utter the now-unthinkable phrase  “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance,” today the spirit of that epithet may as well be launched at Pagans, Hindus, Buddhists, and other faiths that are seen as odd, suspect, or foreign. Meanwhile, Christianity itself grows ever-more polarized and the ranks of those who claim no religion (“nones”) swell to over %15 of the population. The “pagan” answer to this problem might be a better pluralism, embracing that we are entering a new age, and provide more seats at the table for a variety of moral and religious perspectives. To remember a world where embracing many gods wasn’t seen as a weakness, but a strength.

Sadly, most Christians (right and left) see the answer to this crisis as a return to “true” Christianity (whatever that means to them). Sullivan writes the same prescription that hundreds, if not thousands, of Christ-following “doctors” have written before.

“This doesn’t imply, as some claim, the privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere. There are times when great injustices—slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation—require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well. They embrace nonviolence as a moral example, and that paradox changes the world more than politics or violence ever can or will. When politics is necessary, as it is, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all. But it also means, at times, renouncing Caesar in favor of the Christ to whom Jefferson, Francis, my grandmother, and countless generations of believers have selflessly devoted themselves.”

I’m truly sympathetic to the version/vision of Christianity Sullivan describes, but no matter how eloquent the words, or how in tune with my personal morality it may be, it still comes down to fixing a problem by doing Christianity “better” (or “purer” if you prefer) in some fashion. The problem with this is the triumphalist thread that runs through the roots of all exclusionary monotheisms. Sullivan himself inadvertently touches that root when he approvingly quotes Catholic monk Thomas Merton (from the “New Seeds of Contemplation”), saying his words are “at the kernel of what I believe is the struggle we are all involved with.”

“Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered pathological cruelty of His own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death He opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death.

But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardons and they are consequently returning to the old war gods, the gods that insatiably drink blood and eat the flesh of men. It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.”

Even at its most poetic, its most refined, the ongoing slur within Christianity of gods that are not their God must always continue. I say that with sadness, because I greatly admire Merton, but even he was not immune to the notion that his faith was an evolutionary and moral step forward in religion. The idea that Christianity can be apolitical, except in times of great injustice, is a kind of folly as there will always be those who interpret the times as times of great injustice. For some, there will always be an “injustice” so long as other moral codes, other gods, dare to hold sway, or even stand their ground. When Sullivan endorses New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book (“Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”), I can only remember that Douthat is also preoccupied with fighting “Dan Brown’s America” (because, you know, Paganism) and is very, very concerned about Hollywood’s rampant pantheism.

My greatest concern within this crisis is how we tiny communities and groups, we of the 22%, weather the contractions of a post-Christian world being born. So long as our voices, our solutions, are ignored, I fear that we’ll always return to a status quo of Christianity competing with itself in a paper-thin American secularism, thinking its theological and political poles represent diversity of opinion and thought. Only a future of coexistence, not Christian dominance, is tenable for those of us who fall outside that faith’s borders. As the generational plate tectonics shift, as the anxieties of those in power grow, we need more who are willing to reach out their hands, to avoid the worst realities of such shifts. Make no mistake, we are caught in another faith’s crisis, and how that faith treats the “others” and the “nones” will reveal the tenor of our republic for generations to come.